Sacred Lake Atitlán

Picture a lake, vast as the ocean, surrounded by steep heels and volcanoes. In spite of the altitude, 1.562 meters above the sea level, a sort of the jungle is growing over the shore and the hills. Tropical birds, butterflies and squirrels bustle among palm and banana trees, holding on to lianas. Bright sunshine light reveals the array of flowers, vivid as only fresh blooms can be.

This is the place, where, according to many Mayan legends, the world was born.

Around the site of pilgrimage and sacred ceremonies since 200 B.C., several stories and theories exist, revolving around the big question: What is the force, that attracts people to Guatemalan highlands over the span of more than 2200 years and what is the energy, that makes them stay? From personal experience, the special effect can be confirmed, planning to visit for a week, the lake took hostage of me for a whole month.

Lake Atitlan Mayan New Year Ceremonies

Reports about the area of Lake Atitlán being like some kind of vortex of energy, transforming and taking over control, are persistent, also stories about people, who came but never left. With the three volcanoes dominating the skyline anything is possible, according to Mayans, the first pyramids, which they believed had a similar energetic effect, were actually the mountains of eruptions.

The secret of Samabaj

The sunken city of Samabaj, hidden somewhere near Carre de Oro close to Santiago town, was a place of ceremonies on the island, which got overflowed more than 1700 years ago. Still underresearched, Samabaj could be a key to the secret, but lacking financial support and the right motivation, it still holds the mystery close to its Mayan heart.

Fun fact? At the very place where the city is supposed to be, there is an original ”boa constrictor eating an elephant” on the shore; a hill, which resembles the illustration from the novel The little prince. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry spent quite some time in Guatemala, so speculations, from where he got the idea, are in order.

Mayan Kosmology

There are various Mayan sacred sites around the lake, one can find them on top of the volcanoes, hills, under the big trees and behind the stone formations. Knowledge of Mayan sacred traditions, including complex Mayan calendar and astrology, is still widely concealed, unknown even to Mayan descendants, who are slowly learning the kosmology. The knowledge is mostly transmitted from mouth to mouth, gradually letting in the foreign souls, who hear its calling. The concept of connection, between human body, mind, soul and the universe, is an underlining base, on which intricate philosophy is built.

The day in Mayan calendar holds a combination of energies, which are divided into three different systems: The long count, the Tzolkin known as divine calendar and Haab, a civil one. The three wheels turn each at its own pace; their cycles last 2,880,000 days, 260 days (20 x 13) and 365 days (20 x 18 + 5). Each day has a unique combination until the new cycle begins, a concept that leads many people to believe in the idea of the end of the world.

Each day in first two calendars is represented by a glyph, a visual sign of the present energy. Their depictions fill many altars and spaces, but their meaning is not only visible, but each also has its own written counterpart, which compliments the message. The Mayan astrology sign is then a precise composition of different influences, that determine a character of a person, weaknesses and strengths, tendencies along with inclinations. Because of its complicated nature, it’s freakishly accurate, in personality description as well as in daily insight.

Lake Atitlan Mayan New Year Ceremonies

From 11th to 15th February 2018, the solar calendar turned its wheel and Uayeb, the five-day-long final month also known as ”time out of time” of the civil calendar occurred. This is the point of celebration, gratitude towards energies of the past year and excitement about the upcoming change. Five days of ceremonies, happening at all different times of the day, concise around the New Year’s season. The locals and a few inquisitive foreigners gathered around sacred places in Lake Atitlan, honouring the year of the deer glyph, also titled Kej or Manik’.

Lake Atitlan Mayan New Year Ceremonies

Lake Atitlan Mayan Ceremonies

Lake Atitlan Mayan New Year Ceremonies

The ceremony was joyful, fitting the occasion. The participants filled the round fire pit with candles, each colour pointing to the corresponding direction of the sky. On top of them, they placed offerings in the form of sugar, milk, cocoa, and flowers. After the spoken ritual in one of the Mayan languages, they burnt the fire and continued with gratitudes, slowly incorporating some music and dance.  The ceremony closed with a special deer dance, performed with a decorated deer head on the top of the performer. Time flew by, nothing else existed but the spring forest, open hearts and a sense of honour.

Maximón, the sinful saint

The town of Santiago, based at the southern bank of Lake Atitlán, is a home for a Mayan deity, Maximón. Well dressed and covered in hats, the wooden saint is silently present to whoever visits him while smoking a cigarette or pouring a shot of Quetzalteca, the local liquor drink. The room in which he settles for this year is overflown with flowers, candles, incense and different sacred objects, crucified Jesus and another saint, laying in the glass coffin. The practice is simple, one offers some money, which they stuck behind the saint’s tie, a current guardian starts the ritual and quickly verbalise an invocation, covering anything from health to financial abundance and such.

Lake Atitlan Maximon

Lake Atitlan Maximon

The history of Maximón is an interesting one, he was a real living Mayan shaman, who helped indigenous people battle the Spanish Colonialists. Being close to indestructible, the Mayan medicine man survived several attempts of murder, so the Spaniards decided it is best to quadruple him and bury his remains in four different places around Lake Atitlán. But Mayan people didn’t give up, from the four trees, growing on the four of his graves, they created a statue, with Spanish features, but Mayan heart. They called him San Simon, to fool the enemies, but secretly they still prayed to Mayan gods.

The story is just one of many weavings of Mayan religion and Christianity, which can be seen all over rural Guatemala. The sight of a person in the church, praying in the Mayan language to the Mayan god, is nothing uncommon. It reveals the deep roots of Mayan traditions, even after many years of complete occupation on very different levels, the essence is still there, untouched.

 

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36 Comments

  1. Alexander Popkov
    March 18, 2018
    Reply

    These ceremonies are beutiful. Kind of things I love taking pictures of! How do people react there when they are photographed?

    • March 19, 2018
      Reply

      Very good question 🙂 most of the time i feel like an intruder when taking people’s pictures, here is the same story. Usually I just ask, so they tell you when it’s not ok, but with my poor spanish it is a bit hard to make connections! During the mayan ceremony they told us when it’s allowed and when not, so it was clear 🙂

  2. March 19, 2018
    Reply

    Guatemala is somewhere I’ve longed to go, ever since seeing the pics from one of my friends who went there a few years back! It sounds like such an interesting country, rich in history and culture! One day I’ll make it there x

  3. March 19, 2018
    Reply

    Guatemala has a wonderful nature and it’s on my bucket list. The most stunning photos that you can take there (in my opinion) are that ones from ceremony. And I wish to learn one day to catch people faces so good as you did it!

    • March 23, 2018
      Reply

      I am still more prone to luck than intention regarding my photography 🙂 Nature is amazing indeed, but is also quite polluted 🙁

  4. shreyasaha1987
    March 19, 2018
    Reply

    Very interesting blog about Guatemala. Mayan cosmology sounds really interesting! The sunken city of Samabaj as well. Thanks for sharing.

  5. March 20, 2018
    Reply

    Very interesting post! Had no idea about the history of Lake Atitlan and that it is considered sacred.

  6. March 20, 2018
    Reply

    This is very, very impressive. I think that few people get so close to these very touching ceremonies. Your pictures are wonderful!

    • March 23, 2018
      Reply

      Thank you so much!

  7. March 21, 2018
    Reply

    I had never heard of any of this before i read your post. It is was very enriching to know about so many beautiful traditions and the culture. Loved reading your post. Thanks for sharing.

  8. March 21, 2018
    Reply

    Last summer I traveled to California and get to expose more of Mexican culture. The place where I stayed in Asia has less exposure on Mexican culture. After I learn so much from the little Mexican town in San Diego California, I got hook up and wanted to find out more about Mexico and their culture. This article is great as it has added my knowledge and the pictures of the festival are so attractive. Mayan culture is pretty interesting especially the last picture where a man with a mask.

    • March 23, 2018
      Reply

      The culture is extremely rich, just imagine there are 21 Mayan languages that are spoken across the country still … And that is only the surface! Well, my next stop is Mexico so keep in touch for a lot more of the traditions from this part of the world 🙂

  9. Shaily
    March 22, 2018
    Reply

    Lake Atitlan looks breathtakingly beautiful, and quite fascinating owing to its association with Mayan Civilization. I’ve heard a lot about Mayan calendar and astrology but I didn’t know Mayan culture still exists near Lake Atitlan. The legends, ceremonies, beliefs and location of the place – everything is full of charm. No wonder about the magnetic energies of the place where the world was born. I would so love to explore this place and experience the Mayan culture.

    • March 23, 2018
      Reply

      It exists all across Guatemala, especially in the highlands! As much as they were prosecuted by various forces, they managed to survive and keep some traditions alive … It is amazing to think that this is an actual living ancient culture!!

  10. March 22, 2018
    Reply

    Totally unaware of the place, the rituals the traditions, its so much intriguing to read such posts, both knowledgeable and interesting. The way you have written i could imagine myself witnessing those rituals. Every place has a story to tell

    • March 23, 2018
      Reply

      Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

  11. March 22, 2018
    Reply

    Thank you for sharing this information. I learned something about Mayan rituals when I was in Mexico but I didn’t realize you could find them in Guatemala as well. It is so interesting that you got to witness a ritual. The story of Maximon is very sad, but given history, it is unfortunately not very surprising.

    • March 23, 2018
      Reply

      The whole country is sad, with Mayan people still living as they did for centuries, kept at bay from the national decisions and progress … The history didn’t really change, it is repeating still 🙁

  12. March 22, 2018
    Reply

    I’ve always wondered about the Mayan civilizations and now have a better insight. And what beautiful, colorful photos!

  13. Wow, I truly love how you narrate your whole experience with a perfect way of elucidating the history behind the lake. I think the ceremonies are interesting, and I have just heard about it. You have perfectly captured everything, which they have rhymed to how you convey your lakes experience into words. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    • March 23, 2018
      Reply

      Thank you for your kind words <3

  14. March 22, 2018
    Reply

    The Mayan cultures is as fascinating as their ceremonies. The story of Maximón was very interesting too, and a sad testament to what the Conquistadores did in the New World.

    • March 23, 2018
      Reply

      Yes, but I see it more as the story of survival and not giving up!!

  15. March 23, 2018
    Reply

    Oh wow! This is amazing. I want to experience South America and its indigenous cultures but not in an intrusive way.

    • March 23, 2018
      Reply

      They are really kind and warm people If you show them respect they are very welcoming!

  16. March 24, 2018
    Reply

    I’ve been to a few sacred lakes myself and am really fascinated by the legends and beliefs associated with them. I also enjoy being a part of traditional ceremonies and am sure would really enjoy a visit to lake Atitlan. Beautiful photographs.

    • March 30, 2018
      Reply

      Wau, which ones??

      • March 30, 2018
        Reply

        Many lakes in India which are considered sacred. Some of the most memorable ones were Nainital and Bhimtal in Uttarakhand, Gurudongmar and Khechupalri in Sikkim and Rih Dil, in neighboring Myanmar.

        • March 30, 2018
          Reply

          Oh, I must put them on the list when I visit those countries, would love to visit them 🙂

  17. March 24, 2018
    Reply

    That’s an interesting story about the sinful saint (Maximon). It’s good to learn about the culture and traditions about Guatemala. I think the country is also a good place to explore.

    Liz Gen

    • March 30, 2018
      Reply

      It is amazingly diverse, culturally and nature wise!

  18. March 25, 2018
    Reply

    I always wanted to visit Gautemela as it has exotic beautiful nature. But I want not knowing about these wonderful rituals and ceremonies. Good to know about this hidden gem – Sacred lake Atitlan.

  19. March 26, 2018
    Reply

    The Mayans are always mystical. Just loved the photographs. It is good that the people also mingle well with the outsiders and share happiness.

  20. Taylor Johns
    March 29, 2018
    Reply

    I was considering a trip to Guatemala this summer, this really makes me feel pulled towards there even more. I am so curious about the Maya, I want to learn more and more and more. Thank you for sparking my curiosity and excitement!

    • March 30, 2018
      Reply

      Yay, happy to share the inspiration! Stay tuned for more info about Guatemala, there is plenty to come 🙂

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